Look, I have no problem with grim and gritty in my storytelling. If anything, I quite like a number of grim and gritty stories and characters that are out there. As a general rule I have no more problem with the grim and gritty storytelling tone, style, and tropes than I have with any other storytelling’s tone, style, and tropes. There are only three circumstances that arise that find me having an issue with grim and gritty.
1) I have an issue when creators using it don’t understand that it’s not a substitute for a good story or, in some extreme cases, they use it as a substitute for an actual story.
2) I have an issue with it when it’s used where it’s not needed to be used or used inappropriately for the characters being written at the time.
3) I have an issue with it when fans and creators alike, while promoting the style, confuse the concept of grim and gritty with the concepts of both adult and sophisticated storytelling while insisting that the one is somehow automatically the other two.
A lot of comic book writers in the 1980s suffered from Grim & Gritty Syndrome. Frank Miller and Alan Moore gave the industry a one-two punch of awesome with both The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen, both delivering some great storytelling set in darker, grittier worlds than you found in your average news stand’s comic rack. For many readers it was a revelation while critic after critic, including mainstream critics who never typically discussed the comic book world, were raving about the era of the comic book, or the “graphic novel” as the new label de jour, growing up into an “adult” medium for storytelling. You also had the more independent works like Maus or American Splendor that also received some notice, but it was largely the superhero that was getting the “growing up” talk in the media.
The problem was, as with anything else that gains sudden and intense popularity, that a lot of creators not named Miller and Moore didn’t seem to understand that the success of these books was based on the fact that there was a good, solid story first and foremost, and the grim and gritty tone wasn’t the driving factor of the success. There were also many that didn’t seem to understand that “adult” meant a hell of a lot more than just being able to include such things as increased levels of violence, increased depictions of gore, more overt sexuality, increased usage of profanity, and large doses of moral ambiguity and brooding getting wrapped up in Grim & Gritty Syndrome and served up in four colors.
The result of this was a hell of a lot of ultimately forgettable independent books hitting the comic book specialty store racks throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s and more than a few annoying trends in the mainstream superhero books. For a while there, it seemed as if every third indie book coming out was “adult” in nature, but only if you considered “adult” to mean stories that read as if they had been written by an emotionally stunted 16-year-old with anger management issues, an immature view of sex, and an extremely immature set of storytelling skills. Marvel and DC (and still later other superhero lines) also started to go dark and brooding in more and more titles, even when completely unnecessary.
The morally ambiguous “hero” became a big thing, and the idea of heroes who didn’t kill started to be described by some pros and fans alike as passé and quaint. The age of the “adult” superhero story had arrived, and the “kiddie fare” comic stories were a thing of the past. Adult hero books were supposed to feature heroes that were dark and flawed. There were actually growing discussions in some quarters of fandom as to whether or not heroes like Superman and Batman were partially responsible for the death tolls of the villains they didn’t “have the balls” to finally kill once and for all. It seemed to be getting so dark throughout the comic book superhero world that by the time Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross gave us Marvels and a mostly positive, uplifting view of heroes that it came off as almost as huge of a revelation to some as Watchmen and Dark Knight were almost a decade earlier. Sadly, it didn’t have the same effect on new talent that Watchmen and Dark Knight had almost a decade earlier, and the 1990s continued the march by many into what was essentially the lazier way to churn out “adult” fare.
Make no mistake, it was absolutely laziness in many cases or at least certainly came across as such. Brooding took the place of characterization in some books, and, in the name of “realism” in storytelling, some characters started having their personal lives become so filled with drama that they looked more like guests on the Jerry Springer Show than any people you knew in real life. A lot of characters started to feel like depressing, dark cookie cutter clones of one another, and all of them feeling vaguely like a copy of a copy of a copy of an attempt to unsuccessfully write something like The Dark Knight Returns or The Watchmen.
This seeming laziness was typically described as heading into a “new direction” on a book. New talent would come onto a book and attempt to increase interest and sales by, rather than telling more interesting and compelling stories, going darker, grittier, and more “realistic” with their approach to the characters. Old characters were brought back in new books where heroic adventure was replaced with stories filled with ambiguity or fantastical future settings were junked in favor of dystopian settings. It was a “new direction” for the old characters, and it was reflective of a “less innocent time.”
A less innocent time… That’s a phrase I’m seeing a lot again of late. Except this time, it’s being used while discussing superheroes on the big screen.
Man of Steel has been called by some, myself included, The Dark Superman Rises. It was explained by some involved with the film as a more “realistic” approach to Superman. In reality, it was little more than an attempt to ride the success of the Batman trilogy by making a Superman film that was more in line with the darker tone of those films. Now we’re about to get the next Superman film with an apparently darker tone, a darker Batman, a darker toned crew of DC heroes making their big screen debuts, and a grimmer and grittier vibe overall. Moreover, even as this gets ready to drop into theaters, we’re getting ready to be served up what appears to be a less than fantastic but more darkly gritty version of the Fantastic Four. And once again, the defense from some quarters of taking heroes who were not meant to be darker and/or more anti-hero in nature and making them murky is that we live in a “less innocent time.”
You see, at least as the argument goes, the world was simpler and more innocent when many of these characters were originally created and their original and older stories told. It’s not like that anymore, and the “realistic” portrayals of some of these characters as darker is merely a reflection of our more complex and darker world. Apparently, both historical illiteracy and the number of people suffering from the fallacy that "it was always better back in the day" are both at an all time high. Seriously, suffering one or both of those problems is pretty much the only way anyone can put forward the “less innocent times” argument with a straight face.
Superman was created in 1933. Green Lantern was created as Alan Scott in 1940 and then recreated as Hal Jordan in 1959. Captain America was created in 1941. The Fantastic Four was created in 1961. These characters and many other comic book characters who had adventures that were anything but grim and gritty and not at all filled with dark brooding, moral ambiguity, and extreme violent tendencies to the nth degree were created and written in a world that saw the wake of a war that involved the world in violent atrocities on scales never before seen, the rise of the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, a worldwide conflict on a scale that dwarfed the previous war to end all wars, internment camps on American soil, men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his book The Gulag Archipelago, pointless wars where American soldiers died and no one could give truly convincing reasons for our being in them, American school children being taught “Duck and Cover” drills as a part of a daily life of being told that nuclear death was going to come from the skies at any moment, the fashion fad of the wealthy being who had the bigger/better bomb shelter in their backyard, watching us come within an inch of WWIII in real-time, seeing the coverage on live TV about an assassinated President who took a bullet in the head, watching a President resign to avoid facing justice, watching another President break the laws of this country to trade American arms to a foreign power and/or terrorists that hated us, etc., etc., etc….
Just because we romanticize our past in popular fiction does not mean that factual history supports the romanticized version. Just because so many people have bought into the Hollywood version of organizations like the 1930’s mob being a more gentlemanly and civilized group of bastards than we have now or of criminals like Bonnie and Clyde as almost noble heroes of the common man doesn’t make it true.
There has always been crime in our streets, sometimes violent and bloodthirsty crime. We have always faced the threat of war, and we have long been told by the powers that be that we face the threat of annihilation by foreign evils. We have always lived in a country with corruption and graft at every level of our political and financial institutions. We have always had racial and religious issues and clashes in this country. Moreover, these conditions, these everyday facts of life as well as even more bad things like them, have been true all over the world for everyone else since well before we were ever a country.
Despite this, despite the facts of the entirety of known human existence, we still created stories of heroes who were the light in the darkness and meant to inspire us. Yes, we created the dark avengers as well. Yes, we created the anti-heroes who walked in worlds both light and dark with equal ease. However, we also still created the heroes who were meant to be the ideal that we wanted to see mankind aspire to.
We have the Batman (among others) to walk in the darkness as a Dark Knight living in a grim and gritty world. We have the X-Men (among others) to struggle with moral ambiguity and sometimes see walking the path of balancing actions based on the lesser of two evils rather than the greater good. We don’t need to scar the other sides of those coins. We don’t need to take the light and make it a gray reflection of the dark.
People defending the idea of making Superman grimmer and grittier make the same inaccurate statements that were made when Grim & Gritty Syndrome hit the comic book world in such a big way in the wake of The Dark Night Returns and The Watchmen. It’s all about the fact, they’ll tell you, that we live in less innocent times. I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, I think that Grim & Gritty Syndrome more likely comes largely from a combination of at least two things.
One of these things is a growing mindset that is born from (in part) the misguided belief that we live in less innocent times. A thing that has traditionally been seen from the more conservative mindset in some quarters of America (and other places) has been the concept that there’s only black and white with regards to right and wrong. There is no in between. There are no shades of gray. It’s a foolish mindset as there are of course shades of gray just as there is in fact black and white.
Fortunately more people successfully argued the counterpoint of that over the years. The problem is that the extreme opposite view of this mindset demands that there is no black and white at all, and it seems to be growing in popularity. It’s all shades of gray. My freedom fighter is your terrorist, my thief is your Robin Hood, and my vigilant hero is your violent street thug.
The perverted “Robin Hood” mindset with the shades of gray mentality is also very prevalent in the audiences that follow superheroes. You see it all the time with torrent sites. Theft is rationalized and the concept turned on its head so that it’s somehow an act of balancing the scales of justice. It’s the greedy content providers and the greedy creators who are in the wrong. If they weren’t ripping off their fans with outrageous prices, stuffing their bank accounts long after they had more than enough money in them, and/or “making it too difficult” to obtain the product, then valiant “pirates” wouldn’t “have to” or be “forced to” create torrent sites for the masses hungry for the free content that’s owed to them. It’s not the theft that’s wrong in their shades of gray argument. The theft is actually righting the “true” wrong in the situation. After all, it’s all shades of gray based on who has the money and who arbitrarily defines when someone else has earned “enough money.”
It’s all based on perspective after all, and perspective is, so they will explain, at great length, all relative and based on factors such as social positioning, perceived power or oppression in a system, and the ever popular “privilege.” There can be no true right or wrong, no black and white, only lighter or darker shades of gray. And that rationale is applied to everything across the board.
It’s a mindset that seems to be most often confused as being “enlightened” by those who hold it or mistakenly seen by them as their holding a more socially conscious view about the way of the world. Interestingly, it’s also a mindset I’ve seen articulated more and more by creative folks and those who follow them. It’s a foolish mindset as there is, of course, black and white just as there are in fact shades of gray.
The other issue is that we’re increasingly living in an age of more and more privilege. We’re an instant gratification society. You see people all of the time getting furious at technology that glitches and fails to provide them their instant gratification fix.
But we’ve also dumbed-down people’s understanding of how our legal system works, even more so than with just the oft spoken about CSI Effect, that now many people demand instant gratification from justice. That’s always been there to a degree, but it sometimes seems that more people than ever believe that the justice system works with the speed of a two-part episode of their favorite cop drama. When reality doesn’t match the expectation, the fantasy becomes one of fixing the perceived problem. For many, the fantasy fix to the perceived problem is more violent, more instant, than it is for others.
You combine those two factors and mix them with the laziness that I mentioned above, and I think you’ve got the driving force behind a lot of the push of Grim & Gritty Syndrome into places, into characters, that it shouldn’t be in. It’s also not just laziness by some creators, substituting the tropes of grim and gritty for complexity of character and solid storytelling, but a laziness of the mind a spirit. Or it’s just stupidity, take your pick.
But the reason that, for me at least, it feels like a kind of laziness of the mind and spirit is that it often comes off as not wanting to have to allow having something around that's inspiring and that one might actually have to work to live up to. There can’t be “adult” or “realistic” characters that actually embody higher ideals, so they need to be dragged down a bit, their standards lowered, so that the bar is no longer quite as high. It’s easier to pull something down than to think about the possibility that one might try working to pull oneself up and live up to the higher standard.
Grim and gritty isn’t adult. It can be, but it’s not an automatic thing. There are a lot of very adult stories, complex, rich stories, that are neither grim nor gritty. Grim and gritty isn’t realistic. It can be, but the last time I looked, my life and the lives of most of the people I know, people that all live in the real world, typically went along nicely with neither grim nor gritty tropes popping up on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. Grim and gritty isn’t a sign that the times are less innocent now than in the past. Just because you didn’t really start noticing the horrors that exist in this world until on or just after your sixteenth birthday does not mean that they weren’t around in full force long before then
Again, I have no problem with grim and gritty tropes or storytelling in and of themselves. I actually quite like them and feel that they have a place in a storyteller’s arsenal. I also have no problem with characters that live in a grim and gritty world or have flaws and personal demons. I quite like Batman, Punisher, The Shadow, and various noir characters that have been introduced into fiction over the decades. I even like my futures as dystopian as I do ideal. The thing is that I tend to like it best when it’s the characters that are supposed to be that way that are the ones being done that way.
Superman shouldn’t be The Dark Superknight Rises. We have Batman (and darker) in the DCU. Superman and some of the other heroes in his universe aren’t meant to be of the type of darkness that Batman and his kind are. They’re meant to be the other side of that coin. It’s enjoyable to safely travel in the darkness with the characters that dwell there, but we shouldn’t drag the light down into that darkness with the intention of making them as dim or as gray as characters like Batman. Characters like Superman aren’t supposed to be a lesser ideal. Characters like Superman are supposed to be there to inspire greatness.
Jerry Chandler, if it isn’t obvious, wasn’t big on Man of Steel and isn’t too excited about Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice at this point. If that’s your thing, he hopes you at least enjoy it.